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Expo Chicago: Wait till next year

Taking stock of the international art fair's latest reboot

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Last week, ten days after the first Expo Chicago, Tony Karman's resurrection of the once glorious Navy Pier art fairs, Karman took part in a panel considering the value of events so blatantly geared to the 1 percent in a city with a plateful of 99-percenter challenges.

The occasion was the Union League Club's tenth annual Chicago Artists Month luncheon, which brought about 100 mostly struggling painters, sculptors, and other creative laborers into the club's richly appointed no-jeans preserve for an impeccable lunch with a side of civilized discussion.

Hosted by the club's nonprofit Civic & Arts Foundation, the event this year promised to examine the way international art fairs like Expo and SOFA are "creating a market for culture"—specifically, the culture produced by those same chronically starving local artists.

But a show aspiring to international status has to maintain a delicate balance: it can't tip too heavily into local art without looking provincial. Only 15 of the 120 galleries who participated in this year's Expo (most paying a minimum of $22,000 per booth) were Chicago dealers likely to be showing local work.

And in spite of the fact that your average art-fair dealer is as intent on doing business as the slickest hustler on a used-car lot, the rationale that emerged for these high-end shopping extravaganzas leaned heavily on things loftier than the old ka-ching.

Art critic and moderator James Yood said that Chicago's 30-year history of international fairs has helped keep the local art scene vibrant, enhanced the city's visibility, exposed Chicago artists to work from other communities, and contributed to the local economy. Then he got down to business, asking Karman, "How did things go?"

Which put us squarely in the land of spin. Because art fairs, like art prices, are all about perception. If enough of the right people think a fair is good, it will be.

Said Karman, a previous director of Art Chicago, "We established an extraordinary foundation to build upon."

"An incredible amount of civic pride was galvanized."

"I was struck by the way business leaders, along with the mayor, recognize that this is important for our city."

Only after Yood asked if there were things he'd change did Karman—universally credited with working his ass off to create a quality show—touch on two weak spots.

"We may look to shorten the fair a bit," he said.

Translation: Expo, which opened with a Wednesday-night party, got off to a depressingly slow start. Next year's event—and yes, there will be one, Karman says—will be cut by a day, running September 19-22, with the opening night on a Thursday.

And "we may look to build greater outreach to our regional museums and our national museums and collectors."

Because—civic altruism notwithstanding—it's not the 20-thousand-some local window-shoppers ponying up for $20 tickets who can make this fair successful. It's the megabucks global collectors and those from regional museums and beyond, who often travel as groups, come with liberal spending money, and are courted with VIP privileges and private events (Expo offered about 15 tours of private local collections this year).

Dealers I spoke to said that, with few exceptions, these buyers didn't materialize at Expo. As a result sales were tepid, though they did occur (including a few in the million-dollar range). That made it tough for some dealers to cover costs, which as Karman admitted at the panel are "astronomical," especially for those who have to travel.

Karman says he doesn't collect overall sales figures, and registration for next year hasn't yet begun. In a phone interview the day after the panel, he said he thinks sales were "extraordinarily strong in a lot of price ranges, and that bodes well for the future." He also said "a great fair is never built in a year. It takes time to get on everyone's calendars. There's not any dealer in the world that doesn't understand that." "And," he said, in a nod to the Merchandise Mart show that folded earlier this year, "we're building on a recent past that was questionable."

"We awakened civic pride and institutional support," he told me. "We set the table for the future. We happened. One knows what we look like. If you got an invite from us and you're in Kansas City or Saint Louis or Minneapolis and you couldn't come this year, you know that you're going to mark your calendar for 2013 and beyond. It's our job to keep telling the story that we're back."

At the panel he added, "The art world has gone through many ups and downs. I don't know if we'll see the kinds of sales that happened a few years ago. For an inaugural year, we have many exhibitors who saw transactions, saw the right people that came to Chicago. But it is a risk on both of our parts, the art fair and the dealer."

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